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This article is taken from PN Review 13, Volume 6 Number 5, May - June 1980.

The Political Dimension of Liturgy

Introduction: the political dimension of liturgical acts

MOST of the Christian churches have been in a period of liturgical reform for several years: a period initiated some decades earlier by the 'liturgical movement' in the Catholic churches. Thomas Merton is probably right that this period of liturgical change 'is to be, and in fact already is, the greatest development in liturgy since the Patristic age and the most thorough reform in liturgy the Church has ever known' (1950; 1965:2). But great development though it may be, it is also a time of serious disturbance within the churches undergoing the strains of liturgical change.

Thomas Merton is only one of several writers who have traced the meaning of the term liturgy to the Greek polis, where leit-ourgos (liturgy) was the public act of citizenship that united the free and responsible individual with the Greek city-state. Merton notes, for instance, that in 'providing for' the ceremonies of the dithyrambic dance and its later civic developments, the Greek citizen simultaneously enacted the meaning of the community and its identity while affirming his own identity as a constituent member of the polis. To be a person, Merton notes, meant precisely to have a role in the public work of the community: a far different understanding from that which equates personhood with the private sphere of the self, family, and friendship. I will return to this contemporary reversal of ancient liturgical meaning in connection with specific innovations in the liturgy ...


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